SAN DIEGO — A former California Highway Patrol officer convicted of the on-duty murder of a San Diego State University student was sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison Wednesday by a judge who said the killing could have been prevented if CHP officials had acted on earlier citizen complaints about the officer's conduct.
Craig Peyer, a 13-year CHP veteran before his firing in May, 1987, was convicted of strangling Cara Knott, 20, on the night of Dec. 27, 1986, near an isolated Interstate 15 off-ramp and throwing her body into a ravine from a 65-foot-high bridge.
Peyer, 38, was arrested 19 days after the murder.
Peyer's first trial ended in February with a jury deadlocked, 7 to 5, for conviction. A retrial followed, and the second jury convicted him of first-degree murder in June.
At the time of Peyer's arrest, CHP officials described him as an exemplary officer.
But a darker side of Peyer was revealed during both trials and in a probation report that was compiled after his conviction. Twenty-four young women testified that Peyer stopped them at night for minor traffic violations at the same desolate off-ramp near where Knott's body was discovered. The women, many of whom did not receive citations, said they were detained for up to one hour and 40 minutes by Peyer, who queried them about their personal lives.
A probation officer reported that one of Peyer's two former wives said that he became "Mr. Macho" after joining the CHP and that "the badge was a way to flirt."
On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Richard Huffman lambasted CHP officials for allowing Peyer "to continue taking young women to the off-ramp, even after receiving complaints" about his conduct.
If the CHP had acted on the complaints instead of dismissing them, Huffman said, "Cara Knott would be alive and Craig Peyer would not be on his way to state prison."
The normally circumspect judge also criticized a CHP sergeant "who commended Peyer for his tactics."
The sergeant testified that, about one month before Knott's murder, he received a call from a mother who complained that Peyer had stopped her daughter and forced her to drive down the Mercy Road off-ramp. But the sergeant said he took no action on the complaint because he agreed with Peyer that it was safer to make the stop on the off-ramp than on the freeway.
Finally, in a voice filled with emotion, Huffman looked at the Knott and Peyer families--who attended each day of both trials--and said:
"I can't fix anything. All I can do is punish. . . . There's nothing I can do. One family has almost been destroyed by this, and the sentence that the court will impose will do the same thing to another. There's nothing I can fix."
CHP officials declined to comment on Huffman's remarks because of a pending civil suit filed by the Knotts against Peyer and the state agency.
In remarks to the court before Huffman imposed sentence, Karen Peyer said she is still convinced of her husband's innocence. Peyer, who did not testify at his trials and has made no public statements about the case, showed his first hint of emotion Wednesday when he cried softly during his wife's address.
His lawyers said they will appeal the conviction.